We all know the quality of camp food is sometimes questionable. New research backs us up.
But that doesn’t mean you have to throw in the (swim) towel or the (tennis) racket. Not only is it possible to preserve your kids’ healthy eating habits, their habits can actually thrive at camp. Camp food notwithstanding. The key is to think about proportion.
This is important. More than 14 million children in the United States attend summer camp each year. That probably includes yours! Scroll to the end to find specific suggestions about what you can do to offset the, shall we say less-than-stellar food they’ll probably be served. Be ready, though. My thoughts don’t talk about how to improve camp nutrition (though that’s a fine goal). I’m talking about teaching eating habits here!
But let’s start with memories about camp food.
I don’t know why, but I have extremely fond memories of drinking bug juice. We’d come running into the cafeteria after playing some hot and sweaty sport and guzzle the stuff down. It was sweet, cold and, quite frankly, even to my young palate, kind of gross. But it was summer. And this was summer camp. Happy. Happy. Happy.
Here’s one study on camp food:
Researchers conducted a small study in of 5 summer day camps in Boston, MA, observing food and beverages consumption on 5 consecutive days.
Although some children ate breakfast at camp, almost all campers ate lunch and snack.
What was provided:
- Calories – Breakfast and lunch were within guidelines. Snack, however, was double the recommended calorie content.
- Fruit – Served at breakfast and lunch, but rarely at snack.
- Vegetables – Rarely served.
- Water – Rarely served. Sometimes at breakfast, never at lunch and infrequently at snack.
- Juice – 100% fruit juice was common.
- Desserts – Common
What was consumed:
- Fruit – Children typically ate 1/3 of the fruit portion served.
- Dessert and Salty Snacks – Consumption was high.
- Beverages – More than 1/4 of the campers drank nothing during the entire day. Almost 50% drank nothing at lunch and about 2/3 drank nothing at snack.
- Outside Food – Children were most likely to bring sugary drinks, grain-based desserts, candy and fruit from home to augment snack.
What you can do to preserve your kids’ eating habits in the face of camp food.
- Don’t freak out. Remember that learning to cope with crap is one of the best eating habits you need to teach your kids. It’s not about the day-to-day food/nutrition. This is about learning the skills for a lifetime of eating.
- Encourage your kids to drink. However, if they feel ok, they probably are ok.
- Talk to your kids about proportion as the principle of fitting everything into their diets in the right way. In practice this means:
- Having an honest conversation with your children about what they’re eating at camp. Note: This isn’t a lecture from you. You want to encourage their participation.
- Explain why it’s important to eat better (i.e. healthier) at home when camp food is worse. I call this bookending.
- Discussing choices and how you and your children make them, breaking out the conversation about beverages, desserts and fruit.
- Develop a reasonable plan for managing quantity. For instance, talk about what you think is a good plan for juice, bug juice, chocolate milk and water and how your children can make choices such as water at home, one chocolate milk, one juice at camp and then water.
- Ask your child what you can do to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, either at camp or at home. You might be surprised at what you hear (they don’t like the warm or mushy apples, they can’t peel the oranges) and how open your children will be to eating frozen grapes, watermelon, cold orange slices at home.
For more on coping with camp food, listen to my very first episode of The Happy Bite podcast. This one is with Sally Kuzemchak from Real Mom Nutrition.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~